We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do). This word translates into English as “It is finished”.
But what is finished? Several things, which we shall unpack over the next several weeks.
This week: Self is finished.
Our way of doing things is finished. Our rights, and any thinking on our part that we have rights, is finished. When you look up and see Christ hanging there on the cross, whatever rights, plans, and agendas you may have just don’t matter anymore. What rights does anyone have who needed the word “Tetelestai” (It is finished) spoken over them just to be alive?
Our striving is also finished. Gone is any sort of thinking along the lines of “Jesus did so much for you, what have you done for Him lately?” Answer: Jesus did it all. There is nothing to be done. There is nothing you can do, even if you wanted to.
So much of American evangelicalism is addicted to chasing extraordinary. It is as if we are not even Christian unless we are doing something extraordinary, unless we have a huge dream to change the world and are acting to bring it to pass. In that respect, we are breathing the air of American culture at large, where success equals life and to fail is to die.
In response to this, I direct you to consider the example of the apostle Paul. I wrote about this last year at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike F. where I am a regular guest contributor, and I am linking it again because I am all about shameless self-promotion. (Which is completely ironic given today’s subject matter, but here we are. Deal.)
Paul gets a lot of play at large conferences for zealous young college students who want to go out and change the world. He is routinely held up as an example of what to strive for (Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ! Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time! Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel! Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?)
But lost in all of this is a simple fact which is right there in plain sight: Paul’s letters were not written to other apostles. Nor were they written to other pastors and/or church leaders (with a couple of exceptions). Instead they were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers. These people were no great shakes, spiritually or otherwise. They were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children. Their lives were quite mundane compared to those of the apostles.
On Sundays they would gather in the homes of fellow believers and eat their bread, drink their wine, and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of the apostle. And then they went home. The next day they would get up and go to work. And the day after that. And the day after that. Until Sunday came around again, and then they would do it all over again. Week after week, month after month, year after year, until the end of their days. Then they died, and now they are all but forgotten.
For the vast majority of these believers, the most significant thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and became part of the Christian community. After that, their lives went completely back to normal. They received the words of Paul, and in faith they stayed where they were, doing what they were doing, all the way to the end of their days.
Never in any of Paul’s letters do we get the sense that he was attempting to challenge his readers to stop being who they were or doing what they were doing. We do not get the sense that Paul was attempting to lay a guilt trip on them because they were back at home in (relative) comfort while he was enduring unspeakable hardships for the sake of the Gospel. We do not get the sense that Paul was ever challenging them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel.
For some of you, this may seem like a death. Death to the dream of being extraordinary. Death to the idea of having a unique destiny from God to do something big that will make a difference in our world for the sake of the Gospel.
I get that. Really I do.
I once dreamed that I could be the next Chris Tomlin. I once dreamed that I could stand on a big stage and speak or sing to thousands. Hasn’t happened yet.
But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard, next to the Gospel itself.
As noted earlier, so much of American evangelicalism is all about chasing extraordinary. It is as if you are not even Christian unless you have some big dream to change the world and are acting to bring it to pass. It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door. Why? Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed. To fail is to die. Success equals life.
But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary. We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down. Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross. We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter. We don’t even need anything from God. Why? Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus. Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.
As noted last week, Lent is all about dying in order to be raised to life. Our Lenten journey leads us directly to the cross, where Jesus died and was later raised to life. With Him we die as well. We die to our rights and ambitions, our plans and desires to make something of ourselves and make a difference in the world, in order that we may be raised to life knowing that Jesus has made all the difference.